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Story of Oman

Frederic Lagrange The terrace and reflection pool at Al Husn hotel

Photo: Frederic Lagrange

Actually, this is only partly the case, since in Oman there are many so-called adventures to be found—trips to wadis where one swims through semi- subterranean pools to immense cave systems, trips to turtle hatcheries in a protected and little-visited region in the north, camel treks for those foolish enough to think that fun is setting off for the desert atop a flat-footed, ornery spitting machine. Most of these outings require more than a modicum of traveler’s esprit; distances are long in this deceptive country, and it costs more time to experience Oman than the average western traveler can afford.

So I booked one of those silly boat rides that promises encounters with dolphins, although as someone who spent part of his twenties crewing on rich men’s sailboats, I have had my share of close encounters with Flipper and his kind. The morning was mild and with a milky haze. My companions on the little tourist boat were three young German women with, between them, a lot of tattoos. The captain looked to be barely 20, which didn’t trouble me. The Gulf of Oman that morning was, to use an indelicate phrase favored by nautical buddies, flatter than piss on a platter.

I expected that we would chug out, putter around for a while, and turn for home, and this is what we did, more or less. It is only in an effort to avoid sounding like Steve Irwin, though—still living then and crazily jabbering "Crikey!" on television—that the sentences that follow are not written entirely in italics.

We saw dolphins that morning, all right, several species and in romping cavorting posses of 10 or so. They leaped and planed in the boat’s wake. They gathered around and rolled their intelligent eyes to regard us whenever the captain shut the engine down. A group of bottlenose appeared an hour out of port and indicated that they were up for a race. The captain got the message, throttled up, and zoomed after them into the deep. Abruptly they lost interest in the game and sunk from sight, as if by mysterious command. And it was only then that the whales came into view.

Was it 20 minutes or three hours that we spent following the playful pod of what appeared to be two cows and two calves?I can barely recall.

What I remember from that morning is them gamboling, nudging the boat’s bow, leading us farther into the sea with signals that felt like a cetacean variant of the come-hither look. I remember, too, the adrenaline charge that tends to accompany those fugitive moments when contact is made with a mammalian cousin across what the critic John Berger once termed the unbridgeable abyss. From that particular outing I recall, with almost eerie clarity, the flat yolk of the sun, the biscuit-colored cliffs, the glistening blue-gray of the whales as they crested to drink deeply the air of a very fine day in the Gulf of Oman.

Guy Trebay is a reporter at the New York Times.

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